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UWRF ‘Check Yourself’ campaign receives attention, criticism

January 31, 2017

An educational campaign at UW-River Falls is receiving criticism as the university is being accused by some as pushing a mindset that is too politically correct.

The Check Yourself Educational Campaign, through the Center of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, is aimed toward bringing attention to the potentially harmful words and phrases that people say. Originally called Words that Hurt and Why through Student Involvement, the campaign has been around for a few years and was recently updated to be what it is now.

Nathan Elness, the gender and sexuality outreach coordinator with Student Affairs, is one of the people working with the center. He said that the goal of the campaign is to make people understand the power that certain words can have when people say them without thinking.

“You might not mean anything derogatory or intentionally harmful when saying it,” Elness said. “You could be joking around with friends of yours and that’s just how you talk, but to someone who doesn’t know you and overhears you talking that way, they don’t know that.”

Campaign posters around the UWRF campus warn against using homophobic slurs, asking intrusive and inappropriate questions to trans individuals and using derogatory language targeting women.

The campaign’s page on the university website goes more in depth, including issues like bisexual visibility and body image. However, it also includes a few items that some are struggling to find necessary, like the use of the phrase “you guys” and connecting calling someone “ugly” with a history of beauty standards rooted in white supremacism, ableism and ageism.

Criticism of the campaign was sparked recently, as at least three websites picked up on the campaign in January and posted pieces about it, including PJ Media, The New American and Heat Street. The column by Tom Knighton for PJ Media titled “College declares ‘you guys’ to be offensive” has been shared nearly 2,000 times on Facebook.

Many of the comments on the posts focus on universities pushing political correctness and today’s college students being too sensitive, a sentiment that has been echoed by the rest of the country. In 2016, 59 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center said that they think people get offended too easily over the language used by others.

Heather Snyder, a UWRF senior, said she disagrees: “I personally don’t like that phrase (political correctness). I constantly hear that we’re crushing free speech,” Snyder said. “I hear that all the time, and I don’t think that’s what universities are doing. I think that we’re trying to educate and trying to make people realize that what they say and do can affect more than just themselves.”

Mateo Dietsche, a UWRF sophomore, said that he thinks colleges are indeed becoming too politically correct. He said that some of the words and phrases listed by the campaign are pushing it, including calling someone “dumb.”

“If they are below average intelligence, they are dumb,” Dietsche said. “It is not to be offensive; it is a fact.”

Another item causing confusion is the phrase “you guys,” included because it generalizes a group of people in a way that is masculine by definition. Elness said that he understands it is something people say casually and he doesn’t expect that to change overnight.

“We just want to recognize that there are individuals who struggle with their identity and might not know how they really want to define themselves at that point,” Elness said, “and so being categorized as something that makes them uncomfortable makes them not really want to pay attention.”

For others, like Snyder, the campaign’s goal of making her think was accomplished, as she said she started considering the use of “you guys.”

“It never occurred to me that it could have been offensive, and when I read the description of why this campaign thought it could be offensive, I get it. I was like, ‘Wow, never thought of that.’ I can see it.”

Snyder added that, after thinking about it, she sees how the phrase cannot be argued as gender neutral: “I can’t walk into a group of people and say, ‘Hey ladies.’ People get offended. You can’t walk into a group of people and say that, but you can walk into a group of people and say, ‘Hey guys.’”

Regarding the connection between “ugly” and white supremacy, ableism and ageism, Elness said that it has to do with societal beauty standards and the view of beauty that puts emphasis on being white as being beautiful.

“We see how that plays out across the world, people with darker skin in foreign countries bleaching it to make their skin look whiter and lighter, because that is the standard of beauty that we have currently,” Elness said. “You have to understand the perspective of which you’re coming from in that conversation.”

Other students, like Casey Machajewski, said that the campaign sounds like a good idea on paper but may be hard to implement in reality.

“To say that everyone’s going to stop saying it, I don’t see it happening,” Machajewski said.

However, Elness said that limiting people’s speech is not the goal of the campaign. Instead, he said it is about education and awareness. He said that educating people about the power of language is something he sees as a way of doing his job well, and that the criticism is inevitable but not necessarily harmful.

“That also causes people to stop and think about their feelings on that subject and makes them kind of reevaluate for themselves how they feel about that,” Elness said. “They have to take time to look at the website or look at the poster and read through it and understand what it’s been talking about and kind of formulate their own opinions.”

More information about the Check Yourself campaign and other campaigns and events through the Center of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging can be found at https://www.uwrf.edu/Inclusivity/.

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